Puerto Vallarta, Mexico can be a lot of things to a lot of people. Whether you are traveling in search of beaches and margaritas, culture and markets, or an adventure fit for a GoPro, you can find it in this coastal town. But where to start? I can tell you that everyone I have talked to has had a different experience here and what more could you ask for? In a city of only 255,725 people in an area only 1,300.7 km2 large, you may think that the experiences are limited, but, as mentioned, they are not. So, without further adieu, here are just a few things to look forward to, a few things to do, and a few things to watch out for in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
(For some quick visuals to accompany the blog of ‘the best of Puerto Vallarta’ check out my photography portfolio for this trip: http://travelphotolenses.com/project/puerto-vallarta-mexico-culture/)
Canto Del Sol
Canto Del Sol is a pretty decent hotel in terms of amenities and cleanliness. It has a swim up bar in a great pool with a variety of hourly events put on by the staff. Never a dull moment. The food is also really great. There was always fresh fruit for snacking and the omelette bar was to die for (but always remember to bring a tip for the omelette lady, she can be your best friend for the whole stay). If the main restaurant was not open they always had a snack bar with pizza and beer – I mean cerveza – as well as nachos and a few other filler foods. It also had a nice volleyball court that we utilized many-a-time on which they had organized beach volleyball games.
As for the negatives… the beach. I mean, what negative things can you say about a beach… other than merchants. This hotel’s ‘private’ beach was small enough for the merchants to lean over and try to sell you their wares. At first it is interesting to see everything for sale and your guilt gets the better of you. You spend a day listening to them try to sell cheap necklaces and you eventually buy 2 or 3 that you will never wear again, but then… it doesn’t stop. And this is the difference between Mexico and Cuba. In Cuba people are not allowed to sell on the tourist beaches (a peninsula littered with hotels in Varadero) and, although I do think it is sad that people do not have freedom in their own country, it is nice to have the break. But in Mexico it seems to be encouraged. After the first day your “ok, ill look” as turned into a “maybe later” and inevitably into a simple turn of the head in any direction but theirs. And although you feel bad about it after, at the time… it’s all you can not to rub sand in your ears. I even saw someone try to sell jewelry to a group of people playing beach volleyball! As if that is the time to buy… But again, this may not be at every hotel.
The other down side, for a techy and travel blogger like me, is that there was no wifi. I suppose this is common in the cheaper hotels but it did prove to be a difficult thing to accept with loved ones at home and work emails to respond to. Luckily we found a free wifi hotspot a block down on the street. Only certain parts of the curb worked so you had to scoot around sometimes to find the signal, but once you did it felt like heaven… and as I write this I realize I may have a problem. :S
My best friend visited Puerto Vallarta and had a completely different experience with her hotel. They stayed at the Dreams resort, a place her boyfriend’s parents stay at frequently, and they had absolutely no complaints. They say it is the nicest resort they’ve ever stayed at and has a private beach, meaning no pestering merch salesmen/women as well as ocean views from all of their rooms.
They like the fact that there are no wristbands at this resort as well. This means that you can just walk up and eat and drink at every restaurant, buffet, tiki hut, cafe, and snack bar. I am not sure how they can tell who is actually staying there or not, but it seems to be working for them. She said that the food was all great and they did not have the max ‘a la carta’ dinners that some resorts have even though you could make reservations if you pleased.
It is a 10 minute cab ride from the main strip and boardwalk of Puerto Vallarta and is in a convenient location in the tourist-area for excursions as well.
The great thing about staying in a tourist-y hotel is the hotel nightlife representatives. These people hang out in the lobby and target younger people and set them up with a nightclub on whatever night they want. They meet you in the lobby around 10pm on the night you want to go out (there was about 10 people my age when I went) and they hail taxi vans for the group to all go together. I can’t quite remember how payment went for this. I know that you tipped the promoter and I don’t remember paying for the cab or cover at the nightclub so maybe its all a joint effort from the club to sell drinks.
We decided on the ‘Zoo’ nightclub. It was right on the main strip and only a few minutes from Canto Del Sol. It was… a shit show to say the least. The club was set up sort of like how you would picture a typical zoo show. A big area half encircled by bleachers; luckily they were booths and tables instead of bleachers but it was still the same feel. You may also notice a ringing noise. It would be logical to think that it is your ears telling you it is too loud, which it still might be, but they are not alone. Scantily clad women dressed in fringe mini-outfits with holsters on their hips carrying two 2-6’s (known in the USA as ‘fifth’s’) and ringing a mix of Santa bells and Cow bells. But what on earth was it for? Well… I watched: Every time someone raised their hand in the air and held it there the bells would start and out of nowhere would RUN (yes, actually sprint) one of these girls waving the bells like her life depended on it to the side of the caller. After $5 USD was exchanged the girls would whip out the bottles and give them 3 of the largest (longest continuous pour) shots I have ever seen in a nightclub – Straight out of both bottles consecutively into the persons mouth… and the bells run often.
So, as expected, things got rowdy quickly. As a sober onlooker I was amazed at the amount of action going on around me. Soon enough a pole dancing competition started (in which my brother won… should I be proud?) followed by a wet t-shirt contest, and eventually a break dancing circle. Bells ringing every 2 minutes and constant entertainment, I didn’t know if I should dance or just sit back and watch – I chose the latter.
Eventually the bell shots got the best of everyone and it was time to go home. The club promoter, who kept a careful eye on our group all night, shuffled us back into the van and home we went. Needless to say, those bells rang in my head and my ears for the next 24 hours.
Whenever you visit a city with history you are bound to find some beautiful churches (something Canada and the USA are lacking), and Mexico is no different. Perched atop a small market street stands a stunning catholic church complete with bell tower, crown-like steeple, and tiny cross at the very top. The architecture does not stand out dramatically like it does in some European cities but it still cannot be missed. Surrounded by wide market streets and blue skies it is impossible to skip this little piece of history.
If you are looking to see the ‘real life’ Mexico and skip some of the more tourist-centric areas I’d say the best way to do so is walk a few blocks from the main street. There are some great little hole-in-the-wall taco restaurants and cheap tequila and souvenirs that don’t match everyone else’s. I’d recommend not going alone, especially if you are a girl, and even more especially if you are blonde, but if you have a friend or family on the same authentic adventure it is not hard to find.
If you want to stray even further, rent a car, take a cab, or befriend a local and head out of town. This is where the locals live. Only half an hour away is where you will find ‘real life’. Some stunning houses with clay shingles and pale walls amongst palm trees overlooking the ocean. Another 20 minutes away and you will find run down bungalows with large dirt back yards nestled up to a creek. Driving down streets that have storefronts with Spanish names and no English translation, clothes that do not have stereotypical Mexican patterns, and no sombreros in sight. Sometimes, its just nice to see how people live.
Shopping & Walking
Puerto Vallarta has a beautiful board walk that winds along the coast with entertainment and vendors spread out from end to end. Stop and listen to a Ukulele, pick up a Puerto Vallarta, Mexico t-shirt, and get your caricature done with a sombrero. You can also take measures into your own hands and take some pretty snazzy photos with the strange, unique, and scary sculptures along the way.
After you’ve made it to the end turn up towards the large market. Here you will find all of the trinket-y kitchy stuff you know you want to buy even though it will collect dust at home. But never pay full price! This is a bartering environment (something I am no good at). I have seen people get away with some pretty great deals, especially if you buy in bulk. Heck, we go 4 ponchos for $20! What we will do with 4 ponchos is up for debate, but so far they have made for some pretty funny looking end-of-season campfires.
I did not see any main mall or anything although I am sure there were some away from the strip, but if you are there for the typical tourist experience they have all you need right there along and just off the boardwalk – also a safe area.
Being that we were on an all-inclusive vacation we did not really need to worry about eating out. However, we did. Puerto Vallarta has many restaurants along the boardwalk all with American-quality meals and Americanized food, if you are not there to test your stomach. If you DO want to experience something a little different, those side street hole-in-the-wall taco stands are pretty delicious.
We also had a stop over as part of our dune-buggy adventure (which I will touch on next) at a delicious and beautiful seafood and Mexican restaurant. After climbing 20 stairs winding around beautiful gardens we made it to a seemingly quaint restaurant that was actually much larger than expected. It had a large variety of options and an authentic warm environment.
I will admit that I forgot what it was called, being that I was exhausted and starving from our adventure, but upon a quick Google search I do believe that it was ‘Sí Señor’ in Nuevo Vallarta.
We went on a dune buggy adventure!!!!!! But it was so much more than dune buggying… in fact, it would have been illegal anywhere else in the world I am sure.
We showed up at this sketchy garage area with a bunch of broken down dune buggy’s and some that looked like they may run one more time. After a quick ‘how-to’ (which luckily I drive standard so it was easier for me than others) we were off! Onto the streets and main roads we went, dodging garbage bags, stray dogs, and running through stop signs as if they were there for decoration. And where were we headed? Tequila tasting… A no-limit tequila tasting on a driving tour… something is wrong with that… But alas, 15 minutes down the road we parked like we owned the place and wandered through a quick ‘how it’s made – tequila style’ and threw back a few flavoured clear liquids – some of which I would have thought were straight chocolate sauce if I didn’t see them open the bottle (and a chocolate flavour that I never found again anywhere ever… 🙁 I should have gotten it while I had the chance).
After some tequila (which I am proud to say I limited a lot more than others and was disappointed in the amount of drunk drivers on the road that day…) we headed into the desert to see how these babies drove! Down highways, over hills, through the forest, across a stream, and right down into the mud and dirt, we got filthy… and it was awesome!!!! I also recommend pulling the go-pro out for this one, especially if you have a helmet cam.
The pirate ship experience is cliché and embarrassing, but worth it just the same. My family boarded the ship in the evening and were welcomed by a deck full of Mexican pirates.
I don’t want to ruin the experience for you but you get a decent dinner below deck and an exciting show above deck. I especially liked the show because I was chosen from the crowd to play a part in the play, the damsel in distress to be exact, but one that turned out to be a badass in the end. I am not so
naive to think that it wasn’t my long blonde hair that won me the part, nor that I was the only young person on the ship… but it was fun so I’ll let it slide.
Following the play was fireworks and dancing and a trip around the bay before docking. All in all a worthwhile experience.
Swimming with dolphins
I did indeed swim with dolphins. It was the first time I had ever done it, and was for sure the last. The facility was beautiful and the people were nice, and of course the experience to be that close to marine life was one that I do wish came at a cheaper price (and I don’t mean monetarily), but it simply could never partake in this adventure again. I hate to be a downer (though in this case my morals make me feel ok about it) but you just don’t know how the animals are treated in money-making businesses like this. I will say that I have seen a few aquariums and ‘swimming with dolphins’ arenas since and they do not nearly compare to the cleanliness of that in Puerto Vallarta, so if you absolutely must do this, which I hope you will not, this is not the worst place to try.
However, with so many other things to do in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I just don’t see the need to fit this in.
And that pretty much sums up my trip! Puerto Vallarta has some pretty beautiful sights but it also has some scary ones, it just depends on the experience you are wanting to have. If you want to only see beauty, stick to the tourist streets with your eyes on the vendors – though you may still see heavily armed military and police throughout the area. If you want to see ‘real life’ take a wander but don’t be off-put by the garbage, strays, and warn-down buildings – I believe beauty comes in many forms.
All in all, a cheap, nice get away with a beach, some shopping, some adventures to be had, and some photos to be taken!